Ode to Owen

Thumbs up, my friend. Les Abend

To describe myself as religious, spiritual, or even superstitious, would be a far stretch. But I will have to admit that there have been occasions in my life that the only explanation for the unexplainable seemed to be that someone, or something, had purposely intervened. The following is just such an occasion.

My cell phone rang 15 minutes into the drive home from JFK. I had just landed, safely carrying 300 passengers from London to New York almost an hour prior. The caller ID on my truck’s hands-free screen displayed, “Tim Knutson.”

Feeling a bit guilty, I let the call ring through to voicemail. A CNN report had caught my attention over the XM satellite radio and I wanted to listen until the segment was finished. Tim was one of those good friends that called frequently, irrespective of how well I reciprocated. When the news report ended, I highlighted Tim’s cell phone number and pressed the send button.

“Captain Knutson, what’s up?” I asked.

Uncharacteristically, Tim skipped his typical jocularity and asked, “Do you know if Tom Torti is in town with his airplane?” Tom is a mutual friend who owns a small Cessna business jet.

I said, “No, I’m fairly certain he flew down to Miami. Why?”

“Owen crashed the Cub in the river near the farm. They can’t find him. He was giving a ride to a buddy. I need to get home. There are no more flights to Minneapolis tonight. I thought maybe Tom would fly me back.”

Tim commuted to New York through Minneapolis from his home in Wisconsin. Thinking about Tim’s likable, grinning 17-year-old son, a kid my wife and I considered almost family, my chest started to constrict. Through his Dad’s tutelage, Owen had passed his Private Pilot check ride three months prior. Among other occasions, I had been there on the day he had officially soloed on his 16th birthday.

“Where are you now?” I asked.

Tim explained that he had just left the JFK terminal, had hopped on the Air Train, and was about to transfer to the next station. He had been in contact with one of our New York chief pilots, receiving approval to be removed from his trip. Tim was supposed to have flown the redeye out to LA.

“I’m turning around. Can you get back to our terminal? I’ll pick you up.”

Tim said, “No, don’t do that. I’m fine.”

I repeated, “I’m turning around. Call me when you’re back at the terminal.”

Rolling through a McDonald’s parking lot, I reversed course and re-entered the Belt Parkway in the opposite direction. My phone began to explode with calls and text messages.

In a few minutes the NY chief pilot had discovered that I was enroute back to retrieve Tim. He called to discuss possible options, one of which involved a hotel room so that we could ensure Tim caught the first flight back to Minneapolis in the morning. Despite the late hour, I indicated it might be best to take him home to our place in Connecticut and then drive Tim back to LaGuardia in the morning. He wouldn’t be sleeping anyhow, and I would be by his side. We agreed to play it by ear.

My phone rang again. It was Tim.

I asked, “Are you at the terminal?”

“Not yet.” Tim paused. “They found Owen.” I held my breath. “He’s got a faint pulse,” Tim said with an emphatic tone.

“Fantastic.” I relaxed my tense grip on the steering wheel. “Call me when you get to the terminal.”

Within a few minutes, I was parked at the perimeter of our employee lot, awaiting Tim’s call. I stared at the display of the time on my dashboard. The digits changed excruciatingly slow. Thinking that Tim should already be at the terminal, I dialed his number, hearing only his voicemail greeting. A few moments later, my cell phone rang. Tim had been on the other line. He was waiting for me.

Framed by the darkening light of the setting sun, I spotted the big figure of my friend. The cell phone was pressed against his ear. I rolled to a stop against the curb and got out of the truck. As I approached, Tim slid the cell phone away from his face. His shoulders began to slump.

Tim locked eyes with me. Expressionless, he said simply, “Owen didn’t make it.”

In stunned silence, I took a deep breath. I reached up and grabbed my friend around the shoulders and hugged him as tight as I could. We stood that way for a very long time, two grown men saying nothing but saying everything.

I picked up Tim’s bags and dropped them into the back of the truck. Gently guiding him, I opened the passenger-side door. He sat down with no resistance.

Pulling away from the terminal, I said, “We’re going home to Connecticut. Tomorrow, you and I will take the first flight out to Minneapolis.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Tim said, his voice losing its strength.

“I know.”

As we drove north, past the hectic pace of other cars driving home, Tim conveyed that he wasn’t able to cry. The revelation frightened him. He had just lost his son. Why couldn’t he cry?

“You’re in shock,” I said. “The crying will come soon enough.”

A few moments of silence passed and then Tim indicated a compulsion to call people, to inform them of the news. I considered telling him to wait, but then realized this is what Tim does. And as the drive progressed, it became apparent that the calls and the texts were cathartic for my friend. In the midst of his shock, in the midst of his grief, he found the strength to comfort others. I shook my head in astonished admiration.

Shortly after reversing course to pick up Tim, I had called my wife, informing her of the initial situation. Now I had to give her the updated version of the news.

“Owen didn’t make it, Honey.” The words took effort, moving with difficulty from my diaphragm to my lips.

“What?” My wife asked, her tone quietly incredulous.

“Owen didn’t make it,” I said again. “We’ll be home in an hour.”

“Oh my god.”

“I know. I’ll see you soon, Hon.”

My wife’s voice reflected the pain she had felt not much more than a year prior when we had lost a niece to a sudden an unexpected medical problem.

I glanced over at Tim. He was staring straight out the windshield, his gaze unfocused. With a sad thickness in his voice, he said, “It’s my fault.”

Almost predictably, the self-blame of the grief process began. Tim had trained Owen to fly. Owen was a reflection of his abilities. Tim had given Owen his freedom to use the Piper Cub like the family car. It was Tim’s fault.

For the moment, I knew my attempts to convince him otherwise would be futile. Tim’s self-abuse would continue for days despite my efforts…or anyone else’s for that matter.

After what seemed to have been the longest drive home in my 33 years of commuting from JFK as an airline pilot, we stepped into the foyer of our home. My wife greeted Tim with a long and tearful hug. Nothing was said. We shuffled bags into the guest room. I offered Tim a beer. He declined. I understood.

We allowed Tim the space to make and receive more calls. I answered text messages on my phone and then began the process of unpacking and repacking. Not really wanting to acknowledge the possibility that my stay in Wisconsin would include a funeral, I stared at my sport jackets and ties in the closet. Reluctantly, I made a selection.

I explained to my wife that it would be best if I accompanied Tim on the flight to Minneapolis in order to drive him home to Wisconsin. We would take the first departure out of LaGuardia in the morning.

Without hesitation, my wife said, “Of course.” We looked into each other’s eyes with a quiet understanding that our celebration of 20 years as a married couple would be delayed. The following day was our anniversary. Fate had intervened for a greater purpose.

I discussed the logistical plans with Tim. Our wake-up call would allow us two hours of rest. Tim nodded in resignation. It didn’t matter. We both knew that rest would simply involve a prone position and not much in the form of sleep. I suggested that he also give his phone the opportunity to rest. He agreed.

Cloaked in darkness, the 3 AM drive to LaGuardia became a blur of sporadic taillights and familiar road signs. Although both Tim and I were aware that fatigue was a factor, the circumstances didn’t’ allow us the opportunity to make rest a priority. Our driving conversation was interrupted by moments of silent reflection.

We rolled our bags into Operations and were greeted by the trademark jovial personality of Chuck Eason, a longtime friend to almost every one of our airline’s New York crewmembers. Before he was to begin his duties in the airline ramp tower as its manager, Chuck was dutifully completing a personnel schedule.

Chuck’s exuberance was in direct contrast to the somber atmosphere that permeated the mood of Tim and I. We were surprised, having believed that the horrible information had been communicated.

I knew there were no subtle words to inform Chuck of the tragic news except to tell him directly. At first, the words did not register. And then Chuck’s jaw lowered. His eyes began to cloud with water. I have never in three decades of employment at the airline seen Chuck speechless.

An hour later, Tim and I boarded the half-full flight to Minneapolis. With exhausted silence, we slid into our seats. During the flight I offered Tim breakfast snacks that my wife had packed. He declined until I persisted.

If Tim’s tears were non-existent hours earlier, it was exactly the opposite on the flight. Witnessing his subdued sobs in-between his restless attempts at catnapping were one of the most painful experiences of my life. I felt helpless. The only assistance I could offer was to grasp my friend firmly by the shoulder.

Our two-hour drive from the Minneapolis Airport to Tim’s farm alternated from the emotional to the pragmatic. Tim’s cell phone was rarely away from his ear. What went wrong with Owen and the airplane? How best to handle the insurance company? When and where should Owen’s memorial service be?

As I drove closer to Tim’s home, his trepidation grew more palatable. His words became more regretful. For the first time since the tragic event, he was about look into the eyes of his family. As I rolled to a stop in Tim’s driveway, I couldn’t think of a task more unbearable.

Tim’s wife and daughter stood outside the front door on the deck. With a purposeful stride and emotional strength pulled from deep within, Tim walked toward his family. They embraced, their tears striking the wooden deck almost audible enough to be raindrops. I stood against the car door and lowered my head. This would be one of the worst moments of their lives.

After giving the three of them a few more minutes, I followed the family into the house. We exchanged hugs. Once again, nothing had to be said. Tim’s wife, Dawn, offered gratitude for having escorted her husband during the last few hours. I dismissed the thank-you, indicating that there was no other decision.

And then I passed “the pile.” The pile was nothing more than some assorted clothes and a backpack that sat only slightly off to a side of the living room. The items had been unceremoniously discarded in a flurry. It was the last evidence of Owen’s presence in the house, an act he typically performed to the chagrin of his mom and dad. Not only would the pile remain for days, it would become sacred.

The hours following became a blur. Family members. Friends. Ministers. Police. High school coaches. Phone calls. Pasta salads. Sandwiches. Chicken. Cookies. Overnight, the small farm town of Chetek, Wisconsin had become a community in mourning. In less than 24 hours the town demonstrated a small fraction of the compassion to which it’s people were capable.

The following day began additional challenges. Arrangements for the service and reception were discussed. It was quickly determined that the only venue able to handle the predicted crowd was the high school stadium. Owen was just one of those kids you instantly liked. The fact that he was a player on the football team made the venue that much more apropos.

In addition, Owen had organized a cleanup crew with team members after a tornado had devastated part of the town only a few days earlier. His efforts were revered, making the tragedy even that much more tragic. Having volunteered to act as liaison with the insurance adjuster, circumstances had me driving up to the airport where the accident airplane was being examined by NTSB and FAA inspectors in a hangar. I was delivering both the maintenance logbooks and Owen’s pilot logbook.

A life event of having experienced the chaotic magnitude and devastation of a major crash site prepared me for the view of the tiny J-3 Piper Cub, an airplane I had flown when it wore skis instead of wheels. The lesson learned at the major crash site was to focus on small areas until the brain could comprehend the entire scene.

Despite my prior experience, the first glance was difficult. A 17-year-old with his whole life ahead of him had died flying the airplane. The yellow Cub looked beaten and battered, its wings flopped forward, its nose pressed into the concrete of the hangar floor.

After introducing myself to the NTSB and FAA inspectors, I passed the logbooks over for review. Their expressions were grim and focused. I began a solemn, but analytical inspection of the airplane. It was a broken machine, fractured in various places. The indicating needles within the small array of instruments in the panel had frozen, memorializing the moment of impact with the water. Water can be as unforgiving as concrete.

I queried about the possible causes of the accident, speculation still in its early stages. And as of this writing, the speculation continues. Mechanical? Loss of control? Aerodynamic stall? It doesn’t matter. The probable causes won’t change the fact that Owen is no longer part of our lives.

Fortunately, Owen’s passenger, Hunter, survived. Considering that an imprint of Hunter’s forehead was etched into the aluminum of the small instrument panel, it is miraculous that his injuries weren’t even more serious. Still, he may have memories that will never heal. Hunter attended a neighboring high school. He was a quarterback, about to graduate in a few days.

By Friday afternoon the logistics of Owen’s service and reception had been arranged for the following day. I learned, that in addition to the local ministers, I was to give a eulogy. I was grateful that my wife had traveled from Connecticut to join me.

For over two hours on Saturday I watched an endless stream of people stand in line, patiently waiting to offer their condolences. The crowd had been estimated to be over 2000. I shook hands, hugged, and nodded to the friends and acquaintances that had made the effort to show their support, some coming from great distances. Their presence was a reflection of the Knutson family’s character.

The football field of the high school itself was in direct contrast with the celebratory purpose of the stadium. Perhaps it was the collage of photos that memorialized moments in Owen’s life, or perhaps it was the flowers that lined the perimeter, or perhaps it was the items of memorabilia that created the contrast. It didn’t matter. The stadium was missing one of its favorite players. The electronic scoreboard paid homage by displaying Owen’s jersey number.

Standing in front of the bleachers, looking into a sea of anguished faces, many wearing sunglasses on a mostly cloudy afternoon, I adjusted the microphone of the podium and began to speak about a 17-year-old, young man. It wasn’t until making the mistake of glancing into the eyes of the Knutson family that a lump made its way into my throat. Inhaling quickly through my nose, I was able to continue until the end.

My eulogy accomplished the desired effect. Tears. Smiles. Laughter. A life treasured. A life remembered. A life never to forget.

It was not the way I had envisioned celebrating my 60th birthday, but apparently fate held a greater purpose. I would be dishonest denying that the loss of Owen won’t forever be associated with the personal nature of the day, but I was taught a valuable lesson. A number is just a number. A day is what you make of it.

Thanks, Owen. Glad to have contributed in your honor. I will treasure our moments together, as insignificant as they might have seemed at the time. You’ll always be missed. Thumbs up, my friend.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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